Grant aids project by IU, other institutions to digitize medieval manuscripts

Indiana University Bloomington and a consortium of higher-learning institutions have received a three-year grant for The Peripheral Manuscripts Project: Digitizing Medieval Manuscript Collections in the Midwest, which will create a digital repository and catalog of medieval manuscripts across Midwestern collections.

An example of a medieval manuscript in the Lilly Library collection.View print quality image
An example of a medieval manuscript in the Lilly Library collection, Ricketts B:16 verso. A leaf from a missal. Germany, 12th century. This leaf was repurposed as a wrapper for another volume. Photo courtesy Lilly Library

The Council on Library and Information Resources awarded $281,936.10 for the project. IU Bloomington will serve as host for the grant, which was one of 18 projects receiving more than $4.1 million that the Council on Library and Information Resources announced Jan. 9 for its 2019 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives awards.

The project involves digitizing and cataloging 78 codices, or books, and 406 medieval manuscript fragments from a consortium of 22 Midwestern institutions, including IU Libraries' Lilly Library. The project focuses on distinct collections that the holding institutions have not found it economically feasible to digitize and catalog on their own. A full list of partners is available at on the project's website.

"Every surviving medieval book and fragment has the potential to tell us more about medieval book arts, textual traditions, individuals' lives and libraries -- and even, through their physical qualities and materials, things like animal husbandry and commerce," said Elizabeth Hebbard, the project's primary principal investigator and assistant professor of French and Italian in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. "This is why it is so important to continue to locate and describe unstudied and understudied manuscripts.

"Because they have traveled so far from where they were produced, medieval manuscripts in the United States have particularly interesting stories that span the centuries between their production and their entry into a library or museum collection. We are grateful to CLIR for the opportunity to learn more about medieval material culture as it survives in the Midwest, and to celebrate the role that Midwestern institutions have played in the conservation of this important cultural heritage."

IU Libraries will scan or photograph the manuscripts, and researchers at IU Bloomington, Loyola University Chicago and Saint Mary's College, with assistance from partner librarians and subject specialists, will catalog these objects, including many manuscripts unrecorded in previous bibliographical surveys.

An example of a medieval book that will be part of a digitizing project.View print quality image
An example of a medieval book that will be part of a digitizing project, the Book of Hours (use of Rome). Northern France, early 15th century. Flight into Egypt, f.50r. Photo courtesy Saint Meinrad Archabbey

As a result, The Peripheral Manuscripts Project: Digitizing Medieval Manuscript Collections in the Midwest will bring a wealth of previously inaccessible and uncataloged medieval material to scholarly consciousness.

All of the data generated by the grant team will be made freely available through digital library repository services developed and maintained by IU Libraries. This data includes manuscript descriptions and high-resolution images that meet International Image Interoperability Framework compliance standards.

This new material will be aggregated with existing digitized collections to yield a more comprehensive understanding of North American manuscript holdings.

"The digitization and cataloging of the medieval manuscripts are essential for discovery and on-going digital preservation," said Michelle Dalmau, a project co-principal investigator, associate librarian and head of Digital Collections Services at IU Libraries, and co-director for the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities at IU Bloomington. "The digital representations of the manuscripts will also provide a source for computational analysis that will help us better understand their provenance and provide the foundation for digitally reconstructing/reassembling fragments or leaves to reflect their original state."

Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, said The Peripheral Manuscripts Project is important and timely.

She said that in working with Melissa Conway on the "Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings," they discovered that the vast majority of medieval manuscripts in North America are woefully undercataloged or not cataloged at all, making them inaccessible to students and scholars alike.

"Our hope was and is that scholars across the continent would take up our call to study and catalog these hidden collections, image these unknown medieval manuscripts and make these important relics of the medieval past available in open-access, discoverable environments," Davis said. "Peripheral Manuscripts will do just that and will serve as a model for similar consortial projects in other parts of the United States and Canada."

Other project co-principal investigators are:

  • Sarah Noonan, assistant professor of English, Saint Mary's College.

  • Ian Cornelius, the Edward L. Surtz, S. J., Associate Professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.